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1 Comment | May 26, 2012

The Maine Attraction

Lobster PlateGrowing up in Maine, it is reasonably assumed that my halcyon youth was filled with an unending orgy of skiing, camping, fishing, hunting, and all the other rustic backwood sorts of recreation that out-of-staters generally associate with the place. The bitter truth of the matter is that I never—not even once—participated in any of these activities until I was fully grown and had moved away to other places.[1] Non-Mainers harbor, as well, one additional myth about native downeasters, viz that we daily gorge ourselves on great heaping platters of lobster. Indeed, it was the popularity of this myth that prompted an associate to suggest that I might be uniquely qualified to expound in an entertaining (perhaps even informative) manner on the topic. As it happens, lobster was not, by any means, a staple food during my childhood. I was, however, sufficiently well versed in its many nuances to allow me to offer at least an opinion or two on the matter.

I begin by confessing that, having stewed on the idea for a day or two, I found myself at a bit of a loss as to which particular aspect of lobster lore I might explore. Indeed, my initial reaction was that this ground had been more than adequately ploughed by a favorite author of mine and arguably the finest essayist of his generation, David Foster Wallace, who, in his essay entitled Consider the Lobster,[2] crafted what seemed at the time an exhaustive and provocative treatise on the topic. Oddly, though, despite the essay having been commissioned by Gourmet magazine,[3] in which publication one might have expected to encounter, say, innovative new recipes or eye-pleasing presentation techniques, Wallace instead chose to expound at inordinate length on the issue of whether or not lobsters feel pain when they are boiled alive.[4] He did, however, also see fit to discuss, at least in passing, some of the basics that underlie any fundamental understanding of the lobster, e.g., its biological relation to other creatures—aquatic and otherwise—as well as the economic impact of lobstering on the state of Maine.[5] Surprising as well, particularly given that the occasion for Wallace’s essay was the annual Maine Lobster Festival, he spent rather less time than one might have expected talking about how one actually goes about eating a lobster. All of which prompted me to conclude that it was in this particular domain that I might offer a bit of guidance, with the modest goal of sparing the neophyte or tourist the sort of public humiliation that might otherwise result from inadequately informed dining.

I will, therefore, as a public service, offer some basic thoughts on the preparation and consumption of lobster, in what might be parochially regarded as the true and correct Maine manner[6]. However, before launching into the tutorial proper, I need to clarify an important point. Throughout all that follows, we will be discussing Maine lobsters,[7] i.e., the olive-green-colored ones with big claws that you see in those depressingly small and crowded tanks at your grocery store, usually accompanied by a sign saying something like $32/pound, give or take, depending on the time of year and how far you live from Maine. There exist, of course, other types of lobster, from places like California, South Africa, etc., but these are all abominations of one sort or another, gustatorily speaking, and unworthy of the name.

The first step in the lobster-eating process is selection. If you’re in a grocery store staring bewildered into the tank, you will typically be asked to select one or more specific individuals.[8] If, on the other hand, you are sitting in a restaurant, they will do the actual selecting but will, at a minimum, ask you to choose from a variety of sizes, generally ranging from one to five pounds. Stick with one to one-and-a-half pounders. As with most other animals, the older and bigger they get, the tougher they get as well.[9]

Before one can enjoy a lobster, it must, of course, be prepared. Despite all that you may have heard during your lifetime about lobster thermador, lobster rolls, lobster ravioli, lobster this, and lobster that, there is, in fact, one and only one proper and socially acceptable way to prepare lobster, and that is by the simple expedient of boiling it…in a pot of water. At which point I will pause and acknowledge that the primary audience for this treatise is comprised of those raised and/or currently living in the southern tradition of crawfish boils and the like. That being the case, I feel compelled to digress for a moment to clarify exactly what is meant by “boiling” in the context of Maine lobster. It means putting the animal, still alive and squirming[10], into a large pot of boiling water, to which nothing at all has been added but salt. I should acknowledge as well that I have enjoyed more than my share of Cajun cooking over the years, so indulge me as I reiterate this important point. At no point in the lobster boiling process are substances such as “Slap Ya Mama,” “Tony Chachere’s,” or crawfish/crab boil introduced[11].

There is, however, at least one way in which eating lobster is not unlike eating crawfish, and that is in the magnitude of the mess you will make of yourself in the process. I will go so far as to suggest that eating lobster is, in fact, the messier proposition of the two, if only due to the more extensive excavation required. Whereas eating crawfish is about going directly and immediately for the tail meat, the lobster aficionado will spend inordinate amounts of time digging the tiniest scraps of meat out of places no human has any business going. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. We’ll get back to the eating in a bit.

If you have chosen to partake of your lobster in a restaurant[12], then you will, of course, not be involved in its preparation. If your foray into lobster eating includes the cultural element of dining in an authentic venue, the advice is simple enough—keep it as rustic and close to the water as possible. Yes, there are restaurants in Portland where they will serve you a lobster—places with linen tablecloths and crystal wine glasses. Do yourself a favor: drive the half-hour up the coast to Bailey Island and find yourself a place out near Land’s End where rows of picnic tables are covered with red and white checkered tablecloths—the sort of place where the waitress[13] asks you where you’re from while she’s tying a plastic bib around your neck. If you can actually see the lobster boats out the back window and the people next to you are attacking their food with what look like wrenches and ice picks, you’ve found the right spot.

If, on the other hand, you’re the brave sort and are prepared to look your dinner in the eye as you prepare it at home, a few words to the wise should suffice. Add some salt to the water, get it boiling, and toss in the lobster, taking care to get the lid back on pronto. Like any animal suddenly thrust into boiling water, the lobster will make some effort to get out, at least for a brief period.[14] There exist actual guidelines for size versus cooking time, but I won’t bore you with those here except to say fifteen minutes or so ought to do the trick. You’ll know it’s done when the lobster has turned red and an antenna can be easily pulled from its head. The only other preparation required is the melting of copious quantities of butter. As with my earlier comments concerning spices, this should comprise butter…and only butter. If, in the end, you’ve followed these instructions to the letter, the only two ingredients on your plate will be lobster and butter.

Now you’ve come, at last, to the moment when you get to actually eat the lobster. And it is at this point that you have to make an important decision. You can either take the easy route, which means breaking open the carapace and claws and eating only the easily accessible meat contained in these two locations. Or you can embrace the challenge of locating and digging out every conceivable morsel, regardless of where it may be hiding. This is as good a moment as any to comment on tools. It should be entirely obvious by now that the standard arsenal of knife, fork, and spoon are ill equipped for lobster eating. Rather, you will require nut crackers, an exceedingly narrow two-pronged fork, and a pointed device that looks frighteningly like that thing the dentist inserts into your mouth during your biannual checkup and cleaning. The goal of all this purpose-built hardware is, of course, to enable you to get into those tight little nooks and crevasses where the tiniest shreds of lobster meat reside. If you are at a restaurant, they will happily supply you with these implements. If you’re at home, prepare yourself by obtaining a few sets in advance and spare yourself the disappointment of being improperly equipped when the moment of truth arrives. If you’ve already completed your lobster preparation and only then realize that you’ve neglected to obtain the right implements, don’t panic—simply dash out to the garage. A pair of Vice Grips and a Number Two Philips screwdriver[15] will do in a pinch.

Once the eating has commenced, the process is simplicity itself. Spear a piece of lobster meat with the thin fork, dip it into the melted butter[16], and insert it into your mouth in a manner pretty much similar to any other eating you’ve done in your life. What happens with most people is that they quickly make their way to the tail meat, which is, without question, the sweetest, most rewarding part of the lobster. This is then followed by having a go at the two claws[17] and dispatching the tender morsels easily obtained there. From this point on, most people will make a reasonable effort[18] at getting at the tiny bits of meat in each of the thin legs, a pursuit that requires a level of skill and fortitude typically not forthcoming in the neophyte, i.e., a combination of squeezing, sucking, and skillful wielding of the aforementioned arsenal of implements. There are, in fact, meager but tasty morsels to be had behind the head, in the tail flippers, and in other assorted and obscure locations. Most people I know, though, focus their energy on the tail and claws, make a token effort at a leg or two, and call it quits.

That’s really pretty much the whole story in a nutshell. Indeed, the popularity of lobster in Maine stems not only from its easy availability and mind-numbingly cheap cost,[19] but also from the nearly complete lack of culinary skill required to prepare it. Bottom line—if you can boil water, you can cook lobster. Oh, and one final tidbit of advice—make sure the ones you’re buying have those little rubber bands around their claws.[20] They have those claws for a reason and they’re not shy about using them.

[1] Places, it should be noted, where it doesn’t snow eight months out of the year, but that is a topic for another day.

[2] Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster and other Essays. New York, New York: Little Brown and Company, 2006

[3] Whose editors, I suspect, did not, prior to the commission, familiarize themselves with his previous work quite as diligently as they might have.

[4] This being the preferred manner of cooking and about which I shall have more to say directly.

[5] Which, to no one’s surprise, is considerable. For example, of the 80,000,000 odd pounds of lobster harvested each year in the U.S., more than half comes from Maine.

[6] I will expressly not, for reasons of editorial restraint, discuss numerous other no-less-interesting-though-arguably-less-practical aspects of the lobster, e.g., why they turn red when you cook them, why they prefer the cold waters of Maine, and how it is that you occasionally see those photos on CNN of some guy who’s caught a forty-pound specimen. Perhaps another time.

[7] Homarus americanus

[8] Gazing into the crowded tank, one gets the distinctly spooky impression that they are all trying desperately to avoid eye contact.

[9] Humans being a notable and possibly ironic exception

[10] If this prospect offends your sensibilities or you find yourself wondering whether you are crossing over some potentially important ethical boundary, I again refer you to Wallace’s excellent essay, previously described.

[11] There’s a reason why people perpetuate the hackneyed joke about the New England spice rack comprising only salt, pepper, and cinnamon.

[12] You will pay more, of course. But it’s a small price to pay for a guilt-free night’s sleep. You may still, though, not completely avoid an element of psychological angst, as your server may opt to bring the live animal to your table prior to preparation, just so that you can look into its eyes one final time. Not a terribly common practice in Maine, but it happens.

[13] If it’s a waiter, you’re probably in the wrong sort of establishment. If he offers you a wine list before dinner, run, don’t walk, to another restaurant.

[14] Though not nearly as vigorously as crabs, which I’ve seen leap out of the pot and run across an entire front lawn.

[15] Suitably sanitized of course.

[16] There are numerous potential faux pas that will immediately identify the individual as a lobster-eating rookie, but one example being the pouring of the melted butter onto the lobster.

[17] After you gain some experience you will come to realize that there are two sorts of claw meat, the original and the regrown claw, the former being the more tender in this author’s opinion, though opinions vary. Apparently lobsters spend a good deal of their lives fighting, which frequently results in lost claws, but which they have the not inconsiderable benefit of being able to grow back. If you examine the claws closely, you will notice that the originals are quite pointed whereas regrown ones are rather blunted and generally larger, proportionately speaking.

[18] Particularly if accompanied by a local, who will inevitably challenge and berate you into digging for every conceivable morsel, no matter how miniscule and  intransigent.

[19] At least during the summer months, when fresh lobster straight off the boat can be had for three or four bucks a pound, making it cheaper than hamburger.

[20] Or, alternatively, a small wooden peg jammed into each claw.

1 Comment

Elizabeth 4:55 am - 9th June:

Thoroughly enjoyed your treatise! (And notes.) :)

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